A Writer’s Story: The Query Letter
I don’t think there are any two words more frightening for an author. I spent years trembling before the power of these two words, and the knowledge that “query letter” was essentially my only gateway into the world of traditional publishing. It was my one-page shot, my one chance, to ram my toe in the door of this seemingly impossible-to-break-into industry. If I wanted to see my book on store shelves, I would have to first master the query letter. And I would have to master it perfectly.
If you’re in the Query Letter boat now, struggling with how to begin, I feel your pain. I was once there, I once made it out, and I’m here to help. Let’s go.
Let’s start with a quick run-down on what a query letter actually is. In short, it’s your pitch to literary agents on why they might be interested in repping you and your book. A short letter of inquiry in which you have about three or four paragraphs, or one page, to make your case that your book is good, that it will sell, and that you already have a viable marketing strategy to move it forward. Sound like a lot for one page? Well, I can’t lie to you. It is. So let’s try breaking it down into some simpler steps.
For my own query letter for my first published manuscript, I started by reading. Because as mentioned in the first part of this series (click here for a refresher), there are tons of books out there, many written by agents themselves, on how to best approach an agent through your query letter. I highly recommend some of these books, which I have listed below in “Sources.” Give some of them a read before diving in. You will learn so much not only about querying, but also about the publishing industry as a whole. And especially in this case, knowledge will give you great power.
As for me, after reading at least a half-dozen how-to books on the subject, I learned that most query letters adhere to a three-part structure (just like our manuscripts! Isn’t that funny). Part I is your intro – a quick explanation of why you are writing to this agent in particular, as well as a brief introduction to your completed work. Let’s have a look, using a copy of the Query Letter that I used, and that eventually scored me representation (see my ABOUT ME page).
Dear Ms. Lindsay Guzzardo,
After reading about you on Publisher’s Market Place, and learning about your interest in WWII-era Historical Fiction, I thought my Historical Fiction novel “Six,” complete at 95,000 words, might be of interest to you.
As seen here, Part I of your query letter should be very short and to the point. After all, you want to leave as much room as possible to describe the book itself. And note the personal intro, instead of the classic yet mundane “Dear Agent.” I learned in many books that the generalized mass query method is rarely successful, and it can actually turn agents off. It’s much better to do the research, pick the best agents for your work, and query them all individually. Time consuming, but slow and steady often wins the race!
You also might note that in two or three sentences, you can sum up why you chose to query this particular agent, and how your manuscript matches his or her wish list. In my case, she specifically listed WWII Fiction on her list. And where did I find her wish list? I happened to see an article about her in Publisher’s Market Place, where she listed in detail the manuscripts she was interested in repping. If you don’t have Publisher’s Market Place, or Writer’s Digest (both tools that I highly recommend looking into), there are lots of websites now that list an agent’s book wants – with MSWL (Manuscript Wish List), and Query Tracker being the two most prominent.
Another intro tip is to find something particular about this agent that makes the two of you a good fit. If you google an agent’s name, you will often find a treasure trove of information about him or her – interviews they’ve given, podcast episodes, blog posts, etc. Finding something that a) endears them to you and b) let’s them know you’ve done your homework can only benefit. For example, “I read on your recent interview with so-and-so writing blog that you enjoy female-led works of historical-fiction. It made me think you might enjoy my manuscript.” Trust me, agents love it when you put in the work, because it shows that you are in it for the long haul.
Alright, so you’ve got your intro. Let’s move on to the meat of the query letter. Your story pitch. I would give it one or two paragraphs. A lofty goal when summing up hundreds of pages worth of work, and it only gets harder considering that it’s prudent to add a few notes on a marketing strategy for your story as well. This is where “comps” come into the picture, of which I will explain more about below. But first, let’s take a look at the two-paragraph pitch that I used in my query letter:
D-Day is one of the most iconic moments in history, yet we hear so little from the civilians caught in the crossfire, and how they grasped this unfathomable invasion dropping right on their doorsteps. Of those often overlooked stories, even less exist about the women.
In my novel, constructed around an hour-by-hour timeline of June 6, 1944, six women of various nationalities, ages, and backgrounds fight for survival as the D-Day invasion unfolds before their eyes. In a war relegating civilians to collateral damage, and with rigid gender roles enforcing women being seen and not heard, each woman grapples with her own identity and personal struggles. There are forbidden romances, treasonous alliances, painful losses, and mother/daughter conflicts, all against the backdrop of grisly World War II battles and the harrowing prospect of death. Taking place mostly during this single, momentous day in history, “Six” is a version of M.H. Kelly’s “Lilac Girls” and “Lost Roses,” or Ruta Sepetys’s “Salt to the Sea,” crossed with the bloodied shores of Normandy. Five of the women in this novel are fictional. They show us what it was like to nurse the wounded, work for the Resistance, survive the lethal Gestapo, watch the ships and soldiers storm the beach, and struggle across the battle-riddled Normandy countryside. The sixth woman is a carefully considered account of a real historical figure – Mildred Gillars, better known as Axis Sally
Whew. That’s a lot of meat to fit into one query letter, so let’s point out some things. First, a query letter is not a synopsis. You don’t have to give away any endings here. In fact, it might be a good idea to put some unanswered questions in there that will intrigue an agent. In this case, I didn’t give away who makes it out alive and who doesn’t. I didn’t even give away which woman was involved with which intense plot line. I just summed up the conflicts that arise and left the agent to guess the rest. It obviously worked, since she hit me up the next day for a full.
You might also notice the mention of other books. This is what is referred to as “comps,” books that are “comparable” to your own and will accomplish many things in a query letter. First, they give your agent-hopeful a reference point for what to expect out of your manuscript. Second, they show that you are up to date on your reading and that you know what books are selling. Third, they show that you’ve thought about your book in a marketing sense, knowing which audiences you’d like to get a piece of, and which readers will gravitate towards you and your work. With those key points in mind, picking the right comps can sometimes be a tricky business. I recommend books that did pretty well (well enough that most people in the biz will have heard of them), books that came out in the last four or five years, and books that are of similar genre and plot to your own. They don’t have to be an exact match, but they should have some basics in common like time period, main characters, or setting.
Alright, the hard part is over. You’ve got a great intro and a sizzling pitch. Now it’s time to sell yourself as an author. In this closer paragraph, you should sum up your writing experience, your expertise, and your marketable assets in a couple sentences. If you have no prior publications, that’s okay. I didn’t either. Honestly, I have it on good authority that agents are more interested in whether they can sell the book than anything else, but it’s still a good idea to market yourself as the right person to tell your story. So if you have no other writing credits, think of some other things that can give you a boost. Do you have job experience that makes you an expert on your subject? Have you been to the places you’re writing about? Do you have a degree in writing? Do you have years of study on your subject? It all works, and it all helps. Here is the closer I used:
I am a lifelong student of history, especially military history, and I have visited battlefields and historical sites all over the world. I have a degree in Cinema and Comparative Literature, and I have served as a historical consultant and researcher on films and television in Los Angeles. I have a strong passion to connect people to the human side of history through writing, and to include the perspective of empowered female characters.
I thank you very much for your time
And you’re done! See? That wasn’t so bad, was it?
Query letters can be intimidating and a bit scary, but I think you’ll find that once you get started, you’ll get the hang of it quickly. Just put in the work and follow the rules, and you will soon have a crackling query letter that will hopefully snag you an agent’s attention. So get your butt in that writing chair and get busy! Because your future in publishing awaits!
Questions? Comments? Is there a topic you would like to see covered in this series? Hit me up below!
Get a Literary Agent: The Complete Guide to Securing Representation for your Work – C. Sambuchino
Rock Your Query – C. Yardley
The Short Fuse Guide to Query Letters – M.E. Richter & G. Warnock
How to Write a Great Query Letter – N. Lukeman
The Writer’s Digest Guide to Query Letters – W. Burt-Thomas
My cats were very happy to be featured in this article. They hope you found comfort in their cuteness when dealing with such a scary topic!